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Interview with Liz Charsley-Jory

Can you tell me a little about your background?

I’m from Canada but have lived in London most of my adult life. I’ve been a full time artist since I did my MA in Drawing at Camberwell College of Art in 2007/2008. Before that I worked in prop-making for the theatre, which I still do from time to time. I’m the head of props for the musical CATS, which is currently at the Palladium, and will be staged in Paris and on Broadway later this year. I also teach practical art workshops at Dulwich Picture Gallery. I was Canadian Artist-in-residence there for the ‘Painting Canada’ exhibition, and ran a lot of workshops for the recent Emily Carr exhibition. I go back to Canada every summer to re-invigorate my love of trees, beaches and coasts, from which much of my art is derived.

How old were you when you knew that you were going to be an artist?

When I was 5, I had a drawing I made of some horses posted on the wall in my reception class and the teachers all said it was great. That made me feel fantastic and I thought that’s what I want to do, I want to make pictures for the rest of my life.

My mother wasn’t particularly artistic but she was very interested in art. My grandparents were very talented artists who nurtured my artistic ability. They weren’t professionals, they just did art for fun but they were very good. I did art at university but segued into theatre because I liked the collaborative bonhomie of it and being alone in my studio wasn’t appealing to me at the time.

Where does your interest in the natural world come from?

I grew up in a small city, Victoria, BC, which has immediate access to countryside. We were surrounded by water, beaches and there’s a huge park near my family home that has a hundred acres of natural woodland in it.

When I became involved in the theatre, I put that to one side for a bit, immersing myself in the arts and the backstage world. When I came to London I realised that there wasn’t that wilderness that I had taken for granted, so I had to hunt for it. I started making pictures of Canadian wilderness for my home, as a retreat that wasn’t present outside my window. And I go back to Canada every summer to re-invigorate my love of trees, beaches and coasts, from which much of my art is derived.

Can you describe your working process and how you choose your subjects?

I take a lot of photographs. I did a series of pictures of the Thames, which was inspired largely by spending so much time there, as both my boys were rowers. I would be looking out at the river getting bored with waiting around for the boys’ training to finish, so I started taking my camera and bike, cycling along trails and recording views that were interesting to me, in particular the light on water and riverside reflections. Back at home, I sift through the hundreds of photos taken and pick the ones that particularly interest me. Often I’ll take several photographs of the same scene and merge them so the composition becomes stretched either horizontally or vertically, especially in forests in Canada where you can’t get the full tree height in one picture.

When I was doing my MA, I was encouraged to go into monochrome, and make tonal works, getting away from the colour I had previously used. So I did a series of tonal drawings in charcoal of surface waters of the Thames, because the muddy colour of the Thames was not as interesting anyway so it was good to record it in black and white. When I was asked to be artist-in-residence for ‘Painting Canada’, they asked if I would mind returning to colour, given the vibrant colours of the Group of Seven. So I happily returned to working in colour, and oil pastel.

You make drawings on paper in oil pastel, ink and charcoal. How do you choose the right medium for the subject and do you have a favourite medium?

It’s all about the mood of the image, really. I like the archival quality that charcoal gives to some of my trees and water images, that are quite colourful in reality. And then with the ink, I was doing some felt tip pen drawings of trees, inspired by a workshop I was doing on winter tree outlines. I liked the stark black and white look of those. I was making a lot of charcoal drawings of grasses created by lifting off the charcoal with a rubber. I decided I wanted to do them in ink. I started picking grasses on the way to my studio, chucking them on the studio floor and drawing them in ink. That led into wanting to do some low-level pictures of grasses growing in verges, complicated tangles with wildflowers and weeds, which I made in ink and then oil pastel. Some were quite challenging initially, but once I got into it I really enjoyed making them.

I like to move between different mediums, I feel it keeps the work fresh.

You are very involved with South London Women Artists (SLWA). Can you describe how the group works and why it is important to you? Is being part of an artist community important to you?

It was just happenstance for me. The group was formed in 2008, the same year I finished my degree, following some lectures on women in art at Dulwich Picture Gallery. For me it was a perfect step from the MA. Having done a lot of critiques at art college, I liked the idea of continuing these so I ran the critiques for a while. Then I got involved in assisting with professional development lectures, and curating exhibitions. I also ran a gallery for a year with the help of one of my SLWA colleagues. Being a part of an artistic community has been important to me, as I’ve met some wonderful women with whom I have a lot in common – raising children, juggling studio time with family commitments – and it gives me the opportunity to do that collaborative thing again, working on exhibitions with them.

You recently curated a group show called ‘What is Urban?’ as part of your work with the South London Women Artists. I would like to ask you the same question – what is urban?

For a lot of the artists involved, there was a response to finding pockets of wilderness in the city because we feel starved of it at times, especially if you haven’t got a garden or access to parks. We are lucky as we have lots of access to parks in south London. Even so, you are sometimes cooped up in your studio with lashing rain outside and you want to have a bit of access to something besides tower blocks and gutters to look at. So I asked the question. Grayson Perry had just done that series ‘Who Am I?’ that questioned portraiture, and this was questioning urbanity. Sometimes the first thing you think about is street art and hip hop. Just because we live in the city doesn’t mean we are all street artist who listen to rap music. You can be a person who lives, works and creates in a very different way. And so the artists had responses based on city patterns, textures, and building structures, and a few responded by thinking about clusters and congregations of people. For me, urban is about living in a city with an amazing visual culture but also some well-placed greenery and wilderness.

So would you say, when you look at your work, it is all about the natural world? How would you describe what you are looking for?

Parks are the best thing to have in a city for that very reason, because you feel you can breathe. They get full of people and dogs but at least there’s an option to go and be in a big space. I cycle a lot, I dip into parks and cycle through them, feel the wind in my hair, the sun on my shoulders. One of my favourite local parks is Burgess Park, which was recently closed for a year and a half for regeneration. They have planted meadows, created hills, and the pond has got reeds around it for the ducks to nest. I think it’s magic. When I cycle through London I always choose the most park-accessible route available. I really believe in the importance of green spaces in an urban setting. I go through them and I’ll stop if I see a view I like, some trees, or these plants, gnarly grasses and weeds, and I’ll photograph them, look at them and think how I can make them into a piece later on.

What do you like about being involved in the Artists’ Open House, during the Dulwich Festival?

I really like meeting people coming through. As an artist you always want to get feedback on your work. If you’re stuck in a studio by yourself and you get no feedback, you have no idea how people view your work, or what they think about it. Even if someone comes through and doesn’t buy anything, they will still say something; we’ll have a conversation about a piece where they recognise the location, or they’ll ask about my process.

What artists inspire you?

I like a lot of Canadian artists. Takao Tanabe does the most beautiful, big three metre wide landscapes. I also really like Peter Doig’s work. It’s completely different, it’s big but it’s layered and textured. I like Gordon Smith’s complex grassy paintings. But I also like artists who can pare things down, and take out a lot of detail. I struggle with that, because I always get wrapped up in the detail. I like putting it back in. I’ve resigned myself to that. Whenever I feel like I’m getting bogged down in detail, I open up Gustav Klimt’s landscape book. I love his work.

What are you going to be showing in this year’s Open House?

A lot of my recent work has gone to Canada where I’m having a solo show in June. So I’m showing some older charcoal water drawings, some field cyanotypes, and some newer ink drawings of grasses and wildflowers.

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